Anaïs nin wrote dreamy, poetic novels and pornography, too, but only when she needed the money. Mostly she is remembered for her diaries. She wrote everything down, thirty-five thousand pages by the time she was finished recording her thoughts about herself and her life. She wrote so constantly that Anatole Broyard thought she must have also written her own face, so precisely did she paint her mouth and redraw her eyebrows.
Whether she was in Paris or Greenwich Village, Anaïs slept with everyone, and of course she wrote that down, too. It was rumored that her lovers included Henry and June Miller, Gore Vidal, Otto Rank, James Agee, Lawrence Durrell, her own father (but only when she was in her thirties), plus her two husbands, to whom she was married simultaneously. Some skeptics thought that she didn’t sleep with as many people as she said she did, but even so.
Anaïs was sometimes called “The Madonna of the Clitoris.” Later in her life, she became an icon of the feminist movement. She also coined many aphorisms, among them the useful “Good things happen to those who hustle.”
Naomi, allen ginsberg’s mother, was a communist. She went mad, but one thing had nothing to do with the other. Allen’s father, Louis, was a poet.
Allen went to Columbia University, where he fell in with a pretty weird bunch of guys: Jack Kerouac was weird, so was William Burroughs. Later, Burroughs killed his wife, but it was an accident; Allen’s friend Lucien Carr killed somebody, too. Herbert Huncke, another pal, was a Times Square hustler. This group of guys, including Neal Cassady, became the Beats, icons to a generation, even though no one actually knew what “Beat” meant. They drove around the country a lot, writing everything down and searching for . . . something. Sex and drugs were important to their work; also important was talking all night. “Howl” is Allen’s most famous poem. He also wrote a poem called “America,” which contains the lines: America stop pushing I know what I’m doing. . . . America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the whee
Eventually, Allen gave up drugs. He studied with gurus and became a guru himself. When he was in the Village, he lived on East Seventh Street. When Allen was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Kurt Vonnegut noted of himself and Allen, “If we aren’t the establishment, I don’t know who is.”
Like many writers of his time, Edward Estlin Cummings—“Estlin” to his friends, “e. e.” to his readers—had advanced literary notions (i.e., not using Capital Letters). Estlin was Cambridge born and Harvard bred. His father had high hopes for him, but Estlin’s ambitions were to write, to paint, to lose his virginity, and to live in the Village. In time, he did all those things in the Village, except for the lost-virginity part, which he dealt with in France.
Estlin was very susceptible to women. Realizing this, women treated him badly. He had three wives. His first wife soon left him for another man. Of his second, Estlin wrote, “She was a woman upon whom many men might go, as if she were a ship.” This same wife referred to him as “my puny husband,” among other aspersions on his virility. Finally, Estlin married a third wife, with whom he was very happy.
Estlin developed some unfashionable political views; he thought that President Roosevelt was taking orders from Moscow and that Jews, whom he called kikes, ran the country. For almost forty years, Estlin lived at 4 Patchin Place, across the courtyard from where Djuna Barnes lived. He painted by day, wrote poems at night, and grew old. “Life’s not a paragraph,
” he wrote, “And death i think is no parenthesis.
Margaret Sanger had a cause. Everyone in the Village had a Cause. Everyone thought his or her Cause would change the world. Margaret’s did.
Margaret expounded her ideas at Mabel Dodge’s beautiful all-white salon, at 23 Fifth Avenue. This was where tout le Village came
: Jack Reed, and Big Bill Haywood and Emma Goldman and Carlo Tresca, and Max Eastman. In her ladylike way, Margaret argued for the raptures of the flesh: sexual joy, without unwanted consequences. That was Margaret’s Cause: birth control!
Margaret was trained as a nurse. She had seen desperate women in the slums. She wrote newspaper columns and pamphlets to educate women. She set up a clinic to dispense contraceptives. Soon, she was indicted for “obscenity.” Margaret decamped to England, where she had love affairs: with the famous sexologist Havelock Ellis (who couldn’t get it up) and with H. G. Wells (who could). Back in the Village, she founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood. She was often vilified, but there was no stopping Margaret’s Cause. Margaret lived to see the Pill. And she lived to see the Supreme Court remove all obstacles to the use of contraceptives.
Djuna Barnes came to the village in 1912. She was twenty years old, very tall and striking, and she caused quite a stir among men and women; in the arena of love, she sometimes did not trouble to discriminate between them. When it came to art, however, Djuna’s standards were very strict. Edmund Wilson courted her but ruined his chances by praising Edith Wharton’s work. Djuna preferred a modernist approach, as her own writing demonstrates. She also preferred Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl to Wilson and became engaged to him. But Putzi left her for Germany, where he became Hitler’s press agent. Mrs. Putzi is said to have saved Hitler’s life.
Djuna moved to Paris in 1920, where she wrote for Vanity Fair
and other magazines. She was known for her devastating wit and her black cloak, and she was greatly admired by James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. She and her lover, the sculptor Thelma Wood, drank and quarreled a great deal.
When Djuna came back to the Village in 1940, she moved into 5 Patchin Place. Djuna was wooed by Anaïs Nin and Carson McCullers, but she lived like a nun in her robin’s-egg-blue room, until she died in 1982. Her ashes are scattered around the Village.
Excerpted from The Mural at the Waverly Inn by Edward Sorel. Copyright © 2008 by Edward Sorel. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.